Most people think about the American Great Plains as being the home of the bison, but they also have a close relative that lives in an ancient forest in Kent, England. That is, they live there now after being absent for some 6000 years.
The four animals that will be arriving in that forest will not come from Wyoming or South Dakota. As it turns out, Europe has its own subspecies, the European wood bison.
This is a unique project that will get its start in the spring of 2022. A single male bison and three females will be coming from the Netherlands and Poland and will roam the forest to reproduce naturally. They hope that there will be a chain reaction that will occur as a result of their introduction to the forest.
Humans can change a forest but they often do so in a negative way. Bison can do it in a very positive way.
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The project is named after the reintroduction site, Wilder Blean. The site of the reintroduction is in West Blean Woods, and it is taking place, thanks to the Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT). Although it is an experiment, it may just tell us something about how a large herbivore can have an impact on a forest ecosystem in ways that we don’t yet understand.
“European bison are being used in this project because they are ecosystem engineers, meaning that they are able to change their environment through their natural behaviors,” explains the KWT on their website. “Bison can change woodlands in a way that no other animal can.”
The European bison was common in the area during the last Ice Age. Unfortunately, they were hunted to extinction but have been reintroduced from captivity in a number of other countries, including Poland. Smaller populations have begun to spread into Southern and Eastern Europe.
The bison is known as a keystone species. Think of them as being like a honeybee, or perhaps Krill in the ocean. They provide something to the ecosystem that helps to sustain it in amazing ways. As a keystone species, they will help to preserve other species and the ecology in general.
One of the things that bison do is to kill dead or weak trees. They rub against them or eat the bark, which makes the tree habitat and food for insects. In turn, this provides something for birds and it also provides some sunlight to the ground, allowing new plants to grow.
The restoration of bison into the English ecosystem is doing something interesting that was somewhat unexpected. Along with helping to restore a lost species, it is also adding some Stone Age ecology to the island. The KWT anticipates that the bison can help to boost health and conservation benefits by interacting with nature. It is a project that may just lead to a healthier forest ecosystem and additional animals.
“Using missing keystone species like bison to restore natural processes to habitats is the key to creating bio-abundance in our landscape,” said Paul Hadaway from the KWT.
The People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Fund is responsible for funding the project with a £1.1 million donation. Approximately 1200 acres of forest in the UK will be part of the project. After establishing the bison in a smaller parcel, the KWT hopes to add to it by reproducing free-roaming Longhorn cattle.
Auroch is a large species of wild cattle that became extinct in the 1600s. They would also have been in the English countryside, and Longhorn cattle are an interesting choice to replicate the effect that they would’ve had on the landscape.
European cattle are actually a hybrid of that and another extinct subspecies, with scientists feeling that they have found DNA that was possessed by both of the animals.
“The partners in the Kent project have long dreamed of restoring the true wild woodlands that have been missing from England for too long,” said Paul Whitfield of Wildwood Trust, a conservation charity that will monitor the health and welfare of the bison.
“People will be able to experience nature in a way they haven’t before, connecting them back to the natural world around them in a deeper way,” he concluded.
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